by Nimrah Khan, ’13
As immigrants, my parents struggled to provide the essentials for my family: a good education, a safe neighborhood, a shot at the American dream. They also gave me something much richer: their Pakistani culture. I found belonging as my mother taught me how to make roti or as my dad sang songs that his mother had sung to him. My parents often impressed upon me that, even though they had come to this country for the opportunities, their hearts were still in Pakistan. They wanted to make sure we grew up with that culture and did not forget where we came from.
While I loved growing up surrounded by bright colors, spices, and the pounding rhythm of the dhol drum, I realized early on that sometimes my culture was not appreciated by others. What made me feel safe at home made me a target for ridicule outside of it. As a first generation student, kids would ridicule me, for anything from not having a “dot” on my forehead to the sound of my name. Because of my culture, I was singled out as “the other,” and the kids never let me forget it. They singled my parents out too, because they worked jobs associated with South Asian people and because they couldn’t speak English properly. I was made to feel alienated for the very aspects of my identity and community that once made me feel so safe.
At the time, I didn’t know how to react to this; I didn’t want to be excluded, but I also didn’t want to adapt to a culture that was so cruel and misunderstanding of anything foreign. So, I got over it. I began to celebrate who I was and where I came from, distancing myself from the people who chose to only see me as different and therefore less worthy of respect.
When I decided to attend Stanford I thought that the pain of my journey as a South Asian woman would be over. I assumed I was among a group of people to whom culture was precious, and deserving of respect. In the spring of my freshman year, I rushed a Greek sorority hoping to meet new people and have a community to belong to for the next three years. What I got sophomore year was a lot more than I bargained for. I met some wonderful, intelligent, and compassionate girls that I am proud to call my sisters. At the same time, I made myself part of a community that didn’t understand the power it wields on this campus and the way its events, image, and culture can affect its members and the university at large. I couldn’t believe that at Stanford, a school marked by unbelievable diversity and widespread tolerance, some students didn’t realize that having certain themed parties themed about a different group on campus was problematic.
For a long time, I kept silent. I didn’t feel as though I could voice my opinion. Like any organization, there was a central group making a majority of the decisions and, by default, creating a very specific image for our sorority. I felt like I couldn’t go against this group, even though I was now nominally an “insider,” a member of the community, not the “other” I had been all of my life. Part of the reason was that as a sophomore I didn’t understand how hurtful and insensitive some of these events could be.
This changed when an “Indian Wedding” event was placed on our social calendar this fall. For the first time, my own culture was being parodied and I began to realize the pain that others may have felt in the past. I was angered because this event is, first and foremost, a “social” event where the emphasis is drinking. The justification was that this was a cultural event. If this had been an event on a Friday night, at a fraternity house, without drinking, I would have been happy to participate. I have no inhibitions about sharing the beauty and depth of my culture with people who are willing to participate in it.
Having a party is not a way to experience and meaningfully support a culture. There is a big difference between appropriating a culture and experiencing a culture. Appropriating involves incorporating a culture into your pre-established parameters of ‘party’ and ‘drinking games,’ – experiencing a culture involves embracing it in all its authenticity: actually attending a real South Asian wedding, visiting South Asia and understanding the socioeconomic realities of everyday life there, speaking to diasporic Indian communities about our struggles in the United States.
But to turn a wedding into progressive stations and turn sacred rituals into drinking games? There’s something fundamentally wrong with this and I don’t know if people can’t see that or refuse to.
For a while, I didn’t know what to do. I tried to speak to a few people about it, but the main argument thrown back at me was that since Indian people were planning the event, it couldn’t be offensive. To me this suggested a logic of tokenization and suggested a similar idea to “I can’t be racist I have a black friend.” It established a paradigm of a ‘good’ South Asian and a ‘bad’ South Asian – those who didn’t make a fuss were regarded as native informants while those who did were seen as rash and irrational.
I felt voiceless in a sorority that I had given so much to over the past few years. Whether or not you have specific members of a community involved with an event, it is important to make sure that all members of a community feel comfortable and represented. It is important to do outreach to other groups across campus and make the best effort to create an event that is not isolating for anyone.
My experience delineates a larger issue: Greek life on campus has a policy of ignoring the problematic and contentious, of actively exercising a policy of ignorance. Ignoring these issues only lets them fester inside people, making them feel worthless and abandoned; it just leaves the marginalized feeling worthless. No one should be made to feel like that by her own community, and certainly not at Stanford.
Sophomore year, I contributed to this atmosphere and mostly let it pass by me. I can’t do that anymore. I need to make it clear that I am a proud member of my sorority, and I love certain aspects of how caring and kind its members are. I also need to make it clear that I will not be silenced in fear of judgment by my peers. They can accept me as I am or not, but I am still a member of my sorority and as such am as much of a representation of it as any other girl.
Because I subscribed to this doesn’t mean that is okay that I did—it’s not ok for any of the incredibly intelligent, passionate, and gifted kids at Stanford to perpetuate hurtful stereotypes. Most of us have participated in events that are meant as “celebrations” but are, at heart, cultural caricatures, whether they are Cinco de Mayo or an Indian Wedding. This is not acceptable. Culture is not a commodity.
It became apparent that this event was going to continue regardless of my discomfort, regardless of the fact that it undermined my own identity. My culture was, and is, the most meaningful gift my parents were able to give to me. The beautiful rituals, customs, and traditions are the foundations for so many lives—how could they turn that into a keg stand? What Stanford students may not realize is that South Asian people have historically been called primitive, called backwards, and sometimes even killed for expressing our culture. As diasporic South Asians living in a post-9/11 world we have been ridiculed and made to feel ashamed of our culture. It is a struggle for us to keep it alive within our own communities and yet people outside of our communities appropriate it to be seen as ‘cool,’ ‘exotic,’ and ‘fun.’
How can the gorgeous folds and falls of a red sari be modified into a red scarf? The very idea of someone creating a poor semblance of what an Indian bride would wear and calling it “costume” dehumanizes an entire culture. My mother and father were not wearing costumes when they wed 27 years ago.
They wore their heritage and their ancestry. Their pride.
It offends me, it offends my parents, and it’s disrespectful to so many different communities. My culture is not an excuse to drink. These sorts of events perpetuate cultural stereotypes, and why would Stanford students chose to perpetuate those stereotypes when we can fight them? My culture is not an exotic fetish. My culture is not here for you to feel unique and ‘multicultural.’
If nothing else, I hope this situation can start a dialogue about how “the other” is treated within the Greek community and Stanford at large. I want to be able to feel both ‘Greek’ and Pakistani and I should not have to compromise one of my identities for the other. Even though we self-select ourselves into certain communities, we should not have to not sacrifice our identities or our cultures. We should be bringing these parts of ourselves as contributions, as gifts, to the community at large. There is a lack of, and a need for, open communication and sensitivity within the Greek culture at Stanford. Expressing an opinion is not an attack. Going against the grain does not mean I am any less Greek or any less a member of my sorority. I want my sisters to understand; I want to enrich my community. And sometimes that means standing up for who I am and what I believe in.
Nimrah is a senior majoring in Classics with a concentration in Ancient History. She has studied abroad in Madrid, Spain, and Oxford, England, where she was able to pursue her passion for the representation of women in Greek mythology. After graduating in June, she wants to pursue this interest with Women’s Rights law.